What I miss about the Web design of the ‘90s

Becky Kilimnik

Web design has come a long way since the last century.

For instance, most people (old-schoolers like myself excluded) tend to write "web" instead of "Web." We now design sites to automatically and beautifully resize on any size device. We are concerned with accessibility—our code should be structured such that screen readers can interpret our content accurately and online videos have written transcripts. Someone finally realized human factors should be considered in Web design, so now we have considerable manpower devoted to usability and function. Oh, and CSS. Don’t let me forget that glorious invention, which has transformed and smoothed out all of the above.

All these lovely things abound, two decades after I coded my first Web site. What could I possibly miss from those naïve, early years of Web "design?"

Not much, but there are a few things that do make me a bit nostalgic.

1. It wasn’t hard to be a Web design rock star in 1996

Let’s face it, no one knew what the hell was going on with Web design (despite what we thought we knew). And, because there were no rules, the possibilities were endless. Which is why we had so many terrible things happen with Web sites in the early days of yore.

Don’t remember the badness? Let me recap:

Are you completely engrossed in the golden glow of memory lane yet? Awesome. But remember, when most of the sites out there were fraught with pixelated Flash animations and side navigations, it was much easier to create something that looked beautiful. Even if you used tables for all of your layout! With default cellborders to boot! OMG it was the undiscovered country of lovely possibilities.

The WWW was virgin territory, with no rules and endless opportunity. All it took to set yourself apart from the rest was trying something new—and there was a lot of new for the taking.

2. You had your pick of domain names

Are you kicking yourself for not registering that two-letter or three-letter acronym dot com back when you still could? How about nabbing yourname.com or something quite popular, like ask.com or websites.com? Why didn’t you buy it when it was still available/affordable? Why is the sky blue? Why do people set type in Papyrus? (Ok, one of these questions actually has a logical answer.)

3. One screen-size to rule them all

In the nineties, few people had laptops, and there were no smart-phones or tablets. You made your site 800px wide and had your above-the-fold stuff at 600px high (because common theory stated that nobody scrolled). End of story. You put your navigation on the side (maybe in a frame) and had several paragraphs of copy on the front page (once you did away with that splash page). Because that was how a flyer was designed, and a Web page was just a flyer stuck on the computer screen, right?

4. More content, less sparkle

Smaller screen sizes, and the need to accommodate them, contain the inherent problem of not being able to display all the information in one place. Plus navigation is a constant challenge. There have been some creative solutions to all of these things on many different sites, but Tufte’s voice in my head wants all information to be in one place at one time, allowing me to decide how I want to explore the information, and Krug’s pioneering usability wisdom tells me that information should be in the same place on all sites on all screen widths. And we all know that neither of these perfectly valid information design practices are at all practical or possible on most mobile platforms.

But I’m an old-fashioned Gen-Xer who wants my mobile experience to be the same as my computer screen experience. I want to review an example site on my desktop and then show it to a client on my iPad—and know where everything is. I don’t want the mobile site to decide how I should approach the information—I want the ability to choose how I move through the information. And I certainly don’t want my mobile content to be truncated. Yes, the devices are different, but I want the information, and how I find it, to be the same. (UX designers out there don’t go hating on me for saying this.)

But, when designers do try to keep mobile and desktop sites the same, they end up with vastly simplified sites, even at the larger screen sizes. Which are wonderful in some cases and awful in others.

So, while I jest when I say I miss the strict 800px x 600px screen size design of previous decades, I do think we have a long way to go in mastering responsive design. And, when it’s finally hammered out into an exact science, we'll have moved onto something else and it will be as obsolete a skill as knowing Macromedia Director.


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Rebecca Rule Kilimnik | © 2017 | kilimnik.com